From the Herald-Dispatch

With the Mountain State now looking at more than a dozen brewpubs or microbreweries in operation by the end of 2014, agricultural agents at West Virginia State University have launched a three-year research project to test the viability of commercial hops production.

By mid-May, WVSU will have delivered some 1,500 hop rhizomes to 40 farmers and gardeners in every corner of the state. They will test the growth of the vining plant, whose green flowers are used for bittering, flavoring and for providing the distinct nose of beers.

Brad Cochran, one of the WVSU Extension agents overseeing the project, said they were surprised at the response this winter when they got more than 70 applications from people wanting to try to grow hops as part of the project. The research was funded through a West Virginia Department of Agriculture grant.

“We chose about 40 growers, and three of those growers will receive trellising, the rhizomes and everything you will need from A to Z to go into production,” Cochran said. “The others will just receive the rhizomes… The top three really distanced themselves from the pack. We want to try to get as many growers as we can to get them into commercial production if we can.”

The top three growers will receive 30 of each variety, which includes Columbus, Centennial and Cascades. Other folks, depending upon farm size, will receive 15 of each (45 in total) or five of each (15 total rhizomes) for planting.

Cochran said the growers are in every corner of the state, which should come in handy when comparing what regions in the Mountain State may be more ideal than others for growing hops, the bulk of which are now grown in the Pacific Northwest. Washington State grows 78 percent of about 23,368 acres of the U.S.-produced hops.

“We actually had a pretty good mix between the regions, we had a lot of our growers — about 15 or 20 are north central so Marion, Preston, Harrison Counties,” Cochran said. “We have several in the Cabell, Kanawha and Putnam metro area, some down toward Fayetteville and Mercer and Monroe counties and a few in the Eastern Panhandle.”

Cochran said the project, if successful, could lead to more commercial hop production, industry such as pelletizing plants, and diversification of hop varieties (such as hard-to-get Citra hops) and even niche grain production as well.

“I know that it won’t happen overnight, but I’m hoping that over time we can develop an industry here to keep products here in West Virginia and to help the craft breweries make and market a truly West Virginia-grown craft beer,” he said.

In 2013, the number of breweries in the U.S. jumped to 2,822, a 15 percent increase over the year before, according to the Brewers Association.